From martial law to counter-terrorism law: lessons from British colonialism in Egypt

Map of colonial Egypt, in Ward, Prothero, and Leathes, The Cambridge Modern History Atlas (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1912),

Alice Finden
SOAS, University of London

I have reluctantly forborne to point out that during the war when Egypt was a Protectorate the Home Office used to treat Egyptians as alien extremists.

Sir Robert Allason Furness, Oriental Secretary in Egypt, 1922 [1]

12 February 2020 marks the five-year anniversary of the UK Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. The bill – one in a series of acts passed since the Terrorism Act 2000 –  was described as giving the UK ‘some of the toughest powers in the world to tackle the increasing threat from international terrorism.’ At the time it was condemned for providing the police with powers that were consequently exercised in an ‘overly-broad, discriminatory and ineffective manner.’

The Act introduced PREVENT, which places a statutory duty on public bodies to work with the police and local authorities to help prevent ‘vulnerable’ people from being drawn into terrorism. As reports and cases have shown, PREVENT works on a racialised and arbitrary logic which results in Muslim communities being suspected. In 2018 for example, a six-year-old child was referred to PREVENT for comments he had learned from the television programme ‘Horrible Histories’. The process caused great distress for the whole family. Wide powers such as these have been attributed in part to the definition of terrorism in the UK Terrorism Act 2000 being ‘one of the broadest in the world.’

The elasticity of the terms ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’ of course did not appear with 9/11 or 7/7. Rather, they have a long historical use by imperial states justifying violence against anti-colonial resistance. Cases of British martial law and blacklisting in Egypt in the years surrounding the First World War illustrate the historical racialised and wide-reaching constructions of ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ underpinning contemporary British counter-terrorism legislation.

In British-occupied Egypt, martial law was rolled out alongside the beginning of the First World War. Although the British had imperial control over Egypt since the early 1880s, martial law allowed not only for the establishment of special tribunals, but also for the control of economic and administrative systems for the war effort. It effectively gave the British jurisdiction and control over the entirety of Egypt, at a time when Britain was frustrated with its inability to entirely control the state.[2]

This frustration came primarily from the fact that Egypt had for a long time had its own complex system of legal codes. This meant that until martial law was declared, the British were not able to administer the country as they wished. At the time, Egyptian legal systems combined the Ottoman and French, and preserved elements of Islamic law. The Ottoman system of Capitulations, for instance, created separate legal systems and courts for Egyptian nationals and for foreigners. Frustration and resentment can be read into conversations in archival documents between British administrators. They vent in particular over the delays that the national courts took in dealing with cases in which Egyptians were charged with offences against British soldiers.[3]

Anxious to maintain control over Egypt, Britain quickly brought in special tribunals to adjudicate on perceived ‘anti-British sentiment.’ The most notorious of such tribunals were the 1906 Dinshway trials, where several residents of the village of Dinshway were hanged after attempting to defend their property, on which five British soldiers were hunting pigeons. These hangings were described by Lord Cromer as ‘extraordinary measures,’ necessary in a country accustomed to ‘lawless and despotic government.’[4]

These special tribunals were the beginnings of the British asserting their will to rule through law, which culminated in the imposition of martial law in 1914, when Egypt was declared a protectorate. Martial law was then valued because it:

is therefore not only the one law to which every person within the territorial boundaries of Egypt is subject, but its proclamation was essential, as without it the special legislation necessitated by the war would have been impossible.[5]

Blacklisting and the pre-criminal

Returning to contemporary Britain, with a broad brush, the 2015 Act allows for ‘members of any nationalist or separatist group to be turned into terrorists,’ and also lists ‘proscribed groups’. These are groups that are banned under UK law. In Britain today, the definition of terrorism is tied to membership of one these groups. However the structural racism underpinning the construction of these laws leads to the construction of British Muslims as ‘suspect communities.’ Here it is important to point out that counter-terrorism and counter-extremism powers function differently in legal and political practice. The former are more associated with ‘hard’ practices. The latter are more associated with ‘soft powers,’ that function in the ‘pre-criminal,’ instilling mass suspicion and a climate of fear throughout society.

Policing that functions in the pre-criminal space, such as the PREVENT agenda, effectively functions as a technology of state and citizen surveillance. As noted, the vagueness of terms instils a climate of fear amid society alongside an increasing rate of anti-Muslim racism. Counter-terrorism legislation also allows for other powers to operate on the basis of pre-emptive criminality, for instance, police powers to stop and search. The 2000 Terrorism Act provided the police with the power to stop and search without the need for reasonable suspicion.[6]

Historically, listing groups and names – or ‘blacklisting’ – was practiced in early twentieth century Egypt, where the core features of hostility were a perceived anti-British sentiment and a threat to the peace. The National Archives holds a number of blacklists which rank the hostility of prominent members of the Egyptian nationalist party.

Photo taken of material from the National Archives FO 848/27, 02/07/1920

Such lists were used to organise police raids on particular houses but also on communities and areas. Blacklists were used in conjunction with the emergency provisions the British had bestowed upon themselves through martial law to highlight certain areas as ‘suspect’. This would give them the justification to fine entire districts on occasions of anti-British sentiment, uprisings or violence towards British soldiers.

Photo taken of material from the National Archives FO 141/671/4337/64

Stop and search powers were also highly valued by British police forces in attempts to root out ‘extremists’. Police chiefs in Egypt pressed for an increase in their powers under martial law even after both the First World War and the official declaration of Egyptian independence in 1922. For instance, In 1922, Oriental Secretary, Robert Allason Furness, expressed that:

…by surrounding a central district of Cairo by troops, with an imposing display of force, and searching for arms every Egyptian found within the district. That is the sort of thing that could be justified, and though it is unlikely that any individual by the time he was searched would have any arms on him the fear inspired directly or indirectly might have a salutary effect.[7]

The British continued to defend their use of exceptional powers after Egyptian independence through delaying their relinquishment of martial law. Despite eventually distancing itself from the ‘draconian’ law, the creation of this climate of fear that Furness so desired in 1922 remains within the racialised regulation of communities in today’s Britain. Britain has learned the effectiveness of its imperial methods of governance in Egypt and elsewhere, and continues to make the case for their legality.

Alice Finden is a PhD candidate in Gender Studies at SOAS, University of London. She is researching the normalisation of everyday violence in the move between colonial martial law and contemporary counter-terrorism law, with a focus on temporality and queer methodologies. She has a recent publication (2018) with Feminist Review entitled ‘Active women and ideal refugees: dissecting gender, identity and discourse in the Sahrawi refugee camps’.


[1] Note written by Sir Robert Allason Furness, Oriental Secretary in Egypt on 27/09/1922, FO 141/430/6/5512/116.

[2] Brown, N. ‘Law and Imperialism: Egypt in Comparative Perspective’ [1995] Law & Society Journal 29(1), 110.

[3]  Brown, N. ‘Law and Imperialism: Egypt in Comparative Perspective’ [1995] Law & Society Journal 29(1), 110.

[4] Earl of Cromer, Annual Report for 1906, FO 371/J8788/16, The National Archives.

[5] FO 141/671/4337/1, The National Archives

[6] While this section was ruled incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, the most recent Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 appeared to introduce a ‘new regime of suspicionless border control… based on an astonishingly broad definition of “hostile activity.”’ <>

[7] Letter from Robert Allason Furness FO 141/340/4/5500/14, The National Archives.